15 Classic Novels About Queer Women, From 'The Well Of Loneliness' To 'Mrs. Dalloway'
Tired of reading about romances between men and women? Want to know what classic novels about queer women are out there? I've got 15 classics, published between 1853 and 1996, that you should put on your nightstand ASAP.
It's only when you start looking for classic novels about queer women that you realize just how rare they are. There's a lot of poetry out there about women who love women, dating all the way back to Sappho of Lesbos in the sixth century B.C.E., but finding non-heterosexual women's stories in fiction is difficult.
That's probably because women-loving-women were able to live openly with their lovers for a long time, so their stories were not labelled "lesbian" or "bisexual." You see, until the 1928 publication of a little book called The Well of Loneliness, which I have included on the list below, a lot of people never entertained the idea that those nice old spinsters who lived together for 20 years were, well, sexually intimate. Because of this, you may see some novels on this list that you would never have considered part of the queer-literature canon.
Check out my list of 15 classic novels about queer women you should read pronto:
'Villette' by Charlotte Brontë (1853)
Named for the fictional city where its protagonist lives and works, Villette centers on Lucy Snowe, a young woman who takes a job teaching in a girls' school at the behest of the flirtatious Ginevra Fanshawe.
'Carmilla' by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)
Saddened by the unexpected death of her would-be friend, lonely protagonist Laura finds companionship when Carmilla's carriage crashes near her father's estate. The two young women grow close as Carmilla convalesces under Laura's roof, but there is something undoubtedly strange about the newcomer, who appeared to Laura in a dream more than 10 years before they met, and brings nightmares to interrupt her new lover's sleep.
'Nana' by Émile Zola (1880)
One of 20 novels in Émile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series, Nana follows the eponymous 18-year-old as she becomes a stage performer and sex worker in mid-19th century Paris. She takes on many lovers, male and female, over the course of her life, which is unfortunately cut short at the end of the novel.
'The Bostonians' by Henry James (1886)
The novel that coined the term "Boston marriage" to refer to two unmarried women keeping house together, The Bostonians traces the love triangle of Verena Tarrant, a young suffragette torn between fellow feminist Olive Chancellor and Olive's conservative, southern cousin, Basil Ransom.
"Q.E.D." by Gertrude Stein (1903)
A semi-autobiographical short story by Gertrude Stein, "Q.E.D." rehashes the first love affair between Adele and Helen, which is upset by the entry of Mabel, who wants Helen all to herself.
'An Anglo-American Alliance' by Gregory Casparian (1906)
"Yellow Rose" by Yoshiya Nobuko (1923)
The only one of Yoshiya Nobuko's Flower Stories that has been translated into English as of this writing, "Yellow Rose" is the love story of Reiko, a clever high school senior, and Miss Katsuragi, a college graduate who accepts a teaching appointment at Reiko's school to dodge her impending marriage.
'Mrs. Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf (1925)
Virginia Woolf's eponymous party host takes a trip down memory lane while preparing for the big night, recalling the two lovers — one male, one female — she passed over in order to marry her boring, if stable, husband.
'Dusty Answer' by Rosamond Lehmann (1927)
This coming-of-age novel centers on Judith, a lonely child whose only playmates are the five children next door. The neighbors' romantic involvements with Judith become more complicated when she leaves for Girton College, where she meets Jennifer, who becomes her lover for a time.
'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
The first openly lesbian novel to be written by an openly lesbian author, The Well of Loneliness centers on Stephen Gordon, who loses her strongest defender when her supportive father dies before explaining their daughter's "inversion" — an early 20th century term for homosexuality — to her mother.
'The Children's Hour' by Lillian Hellman (1934)
A tragic and tangled tale, "The Children's Hour" follows the unraveling of two schoolmistress' lives after a wayward student starts a rumor that the two of them are in a sexual relationship.
'The Price of Salt' by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
Therese is unhappy in her relationship with Richard, and falls hard when an enigmatic, older woman, Carol, walks into her life. But when Carol's husband, who knows of her previous affair with a woman, becomes suspicious of her relationship with Therese, he sets in motion a series of legal events that leaves both women reeling.
'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker (1982)
Sexually abused by her stepfather and effectively sold into her marriage to a much-older man, Celie finds happiness in her relationship with Shug, a nightclub performer who was once her husband's mistress.
'Send My Roots Rain' by Ibis Gómez-Vega (1991)
Carole Rio is a Chicana-Riqueña woman who travels from Brooklyn to the small border town of Pozo Seco, TX in an effort to learn more about her father, who has cut off all communication with her after learning that she is a lesbian.
'Memory Mambo' by Achy Obejas (1996)
Cuban-born Chicagoan Juani Casas balances work and her relationships with her family and her girlfriend. But when her relationship ends, Juani allows a relative to explain the situation to her folks, and soon finds herself caught up in a web of her truth and his lies.